We Became Summer   by Amy Barone   NYQ Book s, 92 pages, February 2, 2018

We Became Summer

by Amy Barone

NYQ Books, 92 pages, February 2, 2018

 

REVIEWED BY BRIAN FANELLI

Amy Barone’s We Became Summer is a mixtape of memory, a collection that sings of Barone’s childhood in the Philadelphia suburbs, her working-class family, first loves, and travels to Italy. As the book weaves in and out of memory and location, music is the common thread that links the five varying sections.

The first section, “Heat,” contains short, tight narrative poems that mostly revolve around childhood, family, and adolescent love. The relatively short poem “Summer Haze” presents the point of view of a young girl trying to make sense not only of her parents’ arguments, but also feelings that follow a first kiss. The poem reads,

 

Birthday parties in the driveway.

Cousins galore gather ‘round a bakery cake—

a huge swimming pool with sugary blue diving board.

She made every occasion special.

 

Yet again, he returns home from work bellowing.

We never learned how to tame the air.

My mother blamed his crazy clan.

Hours later, he’s happily whistling about.

 

At thirteen, I get my first kiss in the backyard playhouse.

A threesome with the Stauffer twins;

my face assaulted by twirling tongues.

None of it ever played out like in the movies.

 

“Summer Haze” moves back and forth between  stereotypical, familiar images of a child’s birthday party and the non-traditional first kiss that fails to meet expectations. The opening line could be any adolescent birthday party, and the cousins are not even given names. However, the poem operates the way memory operates. Some details are hazy, but the birthday cake, the father’s bellowing, and the shift in the last stanza to an imperfect kiss are a contrast to the traditional birthday party. This father’s shouting, coupled with the sloppy first kiss, also dilute the idea of a perfect childhood. Barone is careful throughout the collection to never romanticize childhood and adolescence. As the speaker recalls, the first kiss at 13 with the Stauffer twins was not something of movie magic. Rather, it was abrupt and messy. Yet in this first poem, the speaker’s longing for connection is evident, further explored in the first two sections. Recalling an ex in “No Happy Ending,” Barone writes, “Weeks later, amid silence/his words slice through me/Despite his younger years/I want more than a fleeting encounter/I’m willing to caress another raging ego/Take on emotional havoc/Who doesn’t want to believe/this time you’re the one?”

We Became Summer questions relationships and human contact in other ways. There is a recurring idea about the way that social media has altered human contact and our interactions with each other. In “Unfinished,” Barone writes, “We stopped speaking, if you can call words / sent to a computer screen, on a random basis, talk.” In a few other poems, the association of language with computer screens and text messages is always cold, a contrast to real, physical human contact. The poems that explore technology’s impact on relationships and language, including “Unfinished,” also point out how easily it is to end contact with people. Instead of saying goodbye face to face, we can now simply ignore a text message. In that regard, the kiss with the Stauffer twins in “Summer Haze” seems more realistic than later loves that float in and out of the poems in the first two sections. Additionally, there is a longing to return to a time before everyone was plugged in. In the opening stanza of “Power in a Thumb,” Barone writes, “Back when phones were immobile/and laptops futuristic/we posessed little money/but owned freedom.” The freedom Barone speaks of involves hitchhiking, flashing a thumb and trusting strangers “to take us/anywhere we wanted to go.”

The other sections address the speaker’s travels in Italy, her love of jazz, and memories of her grandmother, mother, and father. In the last two sections especially, music is used as a technique to enter into memory and to flesh out family members, thus making them living, breathing characters in the collection. More specifically, certain songs or musical styles are associated with particular family members, and like the poems in the earlier sections, these poems have a tension that highlight some of the conflict that existed within the family, beneath the smiles and seemingly happy childhood. In “Soundtrack to My Mother’s Life,” the speaker recalls her mother, who “loved to croon especially when sad,” before referencing some of her mother’s favorite songs, including “Smile,” written by Charlie Chaplin, “The Shadow of Your Smile,” and “My Funny Valentine.” All of the songs serve as a way to illustrate her mother’s sadness but the veil/smile she often showed to her children. The image of that smile is what concludes the poem and what the speaker says follows her everywhere, which echoes the closing lines of “The Shadow of Your Smile,” specifically the lyrics, “All the joy that love can bring / I will be remembering / The shadow of your smile.”

In “Soundtrack to My Father’s Life,” the speaker credits her father’s love of music, for teaching her to love music. Her father, the son of Italian immigrants, studied violin at the Bryn Mawr Conservatory outside of Philadelphia, and when he left the family, the house felt barren, especially since music “no longer sprang from corners of the room.” Yet, the speaker is able to salvage her father’s vinyl collection, including 45s from Decca Records and 78s from Liberace and Bing Crosby. The speaker never details why the father left, but makes clear that one of his lasting legacies, and perhaps one of his most important, is that he imparted upon his daughter his love of music and not just for one specific genre. The record collection is what the speaker was able to salvage.

We Became Summer is a collection that moves from location to location, from childhood's spent in suburban Philadelphia, to adulthood in New York City, to travels in Italy, but no matter the location or time period recalled, there is a desire for relationships that exist off of the screen, that last beyond a few text messages or phone calls. We Became Summer is also a celebration of those moments that are real and physical, like visiting museums in Italy or hitchhiking as a kid.

The subject matter sometimes shifts as much as the locations, but the book explores relationships, including first loves, distancing, and online communication, while also using music as an entry point for the speaker to explore her family history and why certain songs and musicians still resonate so much in her life. Pop hits like “My Funny Valentine” become much more than an old chart-topper when they are linked to a specific image of the speaker’s childhood. Like a well-crafted mixtape, the majority of musical references in We Became Summer have a specific purpose and call forth a particular time and place in the speaker’s life, be it the smile the speaker’s mother wore to mask her struggles and marital problems, or the record collection the father left behind. While childhood may have had its imperfections, including messy first kisses or quarreling parents, there is still a longing to return to those moments of exploration and adventure “before ennui replaced embracing fear of the unknown,” as the title and closing poem read.

 

Brian Fanelli’s most recent book is Waiting for the Dead to Speak (NYQ Books), winner of the Devil’s Kitchen Poetry Prize. His writing has appeared in The Los Angeles TimesWorld Literature TodayThe Paterson Literary Review, and elsewhere. Currently, he teaches at Lackawanna College and blogs at www.brianfanelli.com.